History and the Information Revolution

Well I did it today. My name sits alongside those of other such eminent individuals as Jimmy Carr, David Lloyd, Stephen Fry and the War Cabinet c.1940. I am, of course, referring to Twitter. Coasting along on one of those lovely Virgin trains thinking of some witty or profound statement to kick-start my twittering life I began to think about how these ‘new media’/web 2.0 outlets would shape and change the way historians research in the decades to come. I don’t suppose I’m being particularly original here but it’s something I don’t think many people in the historical profession will spend a long time thinking about. It doesn’t really affect us now; we have our subjects and, on the whole, the people we are dealing with died long before such permanent sources of opinion could be comprehended.

Yet it’s something we should seriously consider. Social historians more than most will see the change in practices that may well be wrought by such technologies reaching across the globe. Trawling through newspaper archives, looking at the popular literature, and interviewing individuals who experienced certain events will become research avenues augmented by viewing internet archives. Military historians too need to recognise that soldiers are not just writing letters home to their loved ones, they’re sending them emails, they’re poking them on Facebook, they’re even tweeting. In future when this or the next generation turn to looking at what soldiers thought of the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan they’re not simply going to be looking at physical documents they’ll need to trawl through rafts of electronic data. Perceptions have shifted now. I look at the Facebooks, Myspaces, Twitters and blogs and I don’t see inanity, silly pictures and poor spelling; I see source material. It’s a brave new world.

This all raises a number of questions, how can an individual researching trawl through masses of very mixed information? How can we tell who’s important? How much currency should be placed on certain sources? How will contemporary debates on privacy potentially limit the access to material for historians? Where will they find this information?

These questions are far too long to offer any sort of profound answer immediately, but I would argue (even at this early stage) that while the internet has genuinely revolutionised the way many of us interact with others (and I don’t throw the word revolution around often), the way we do history will fundamentally remain the same. The ‘historical method’, like the Clausewitzian nature of war, will not change. For the discerning historian the evidence will still take primacy over ideology or belief; we will still test theories in an attempt to disprove our own suggestions, and we will still submit our material to other experts to be picked apart.

What we are seeing is the birth of a new abundant source of information documenting the times we live in. The process has already begun. This week Israel launched a PR campaign to extricate its name from the proverbial toilet after a botched ship boarding. What medium did they choose? AP? Reuters? Nope: Youtube and Twitter. With State’s directly appealing to online communities for support, the medium will be the home to some of the best historical source material available. In many respects this answers one of the fundamental questions: how will historians filter so much information? In truth they’ll probably focus on the key actors, and existing news outlets have a key part to play in this process. By highlighting state, political, or simply downright interesting individual tales the old and new media alike will be pivotal in drawing the gazing eye of the historian to pertinent commentators.

Then there are sources like this. The internet archive is an admirable but daunting project yet it’s one that will prove vital for historians. By archiving the internet they’re preserving the intellectual and cultural heritage. There’s just one problem, as far as I can tell, you can’t look up individuals. The robots stop that – I wish I were joking. Herein lies a major issue, like Icarus the prize for the historian lies tantalisingly out of our reach at the moment. Currently for-profit sites like Twitter will seemingly maintain profiles for the great and the good upon their death but I would strongly doubt that would be the case for anyone. Space is money in that business and when the traffic drops off I suspect the profiles will be erased (I welcome correction on this point). Most of the time this would be fine, many join and do little, but for those who actively engage; to permanently destroy such a rich source of historical evidence be a real set-back for historical enquiry.

One may think at this point, so what? What would someone who realistically has no tangible expertise or involvement with events have to say that historians may find interesting? The simple counter would be the very fact that individuals commented on an event suggests a certain cultural importance. Negligible as this may seem it could be vital in concluding contemporary views on domestic understanding of conflict, support for war, or simply gauging the cultural zeitgeist in the twenty-first century.

So where’s the solution? Clearly privacy plays a pivotal role in this, and as it stands is actively damaging the possibility of creating an online repository of personal opinion from across the globe. This is understandable for social networking but not beyond a work around. Ideally an opt-in tick box would be presented to a user on sign-up or terms of use changes which would give the individual the chance to have their opinions immortalised in the annals of history. Naturally there would have to be a choice over what information is stored but this would pose no major technological problems beyond storage capacity. The future’s brighter for the more public sites though, a number of blogs are captured by the internet archive and many of the larger, established sites maintain the content from their inception. Moreover initiatives like George Mason University‘s Center for History and New Media (link below) help but it’s a drop in the ocean and much more could be done to preserve the pre-eminent way we express our opinions now. In certain respects the plights of all these sites are much like that of the fine stately homes of Britain: if not maintained beyond the lives of their main occupants by future generations they may fall into disrepair and degradation. And there’s no listed buildings register for the internet.

If this subject interests you, you’ll find a raft of interesting articles that explore some of these themes in much more depth here.

Several of this blog’s contributors can be found on Twitter here and here.

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4 responses to “History and the Information Revolution

  1. Well put and well informed, and up-to-date; as a borderline technophobe I have to say it is both interesting and scary, but in asymmetric measures, the fact that the Israelis are exploiting it has significant implications which may mean it is presently a convenient propaganda resource that will ultimately become a historical research tool, provided of course that someone keeps a record. Are you?

  2. Mac the British Library do run a digital history project where they catalogue and try to preserve website that are deemed of historical importance. It is a difficlut thing to do. I have run several website and then closed them down, therefore, the information there is lost. Who will save the Twitter pages? You can see the first tweet here though:

    As you say the information dynamic of mordern warfare means that this will one day becoming an important source and without a paper trial how will we research it. Think of all those emails we delete!

  3. Thanks Mac, appreciate the kind words. At the moment I’m feeling pessimistic about the possibilities of preserving resources such as Twitter beyond the lifetime of the contributor, partly because I simply don’t see who’ll fund the preservation and do the selecting. Naturally it would be ideal to preserve everything, but then imagine the man hours it would take to sift through the opinions!? As for the military, at present they seem to have a love-hate relationship with social networking and many soldiers are very cautious about what they say re: their day-job thanks to the military secrets act they all sign. Nevertheless, there are resources out there and one may hope that even if these resources are lost they will at least go some way to improving the accuracy of memoirs as soldiers scan back across their socially networked time in service and trace their emotions: a sort of online diary. After all, that’s kinda what they are – just slightly less candid!

    • Have you tried ARRSE? Good on contentious issues and loaded with lively (often ribald) debate. I mentioned to Patrick Mercer, the MP and amateur historian (and former ‘Woofer’ CO) he might learn something from it but I understand such a forum is beneath him. I find it entertaining at least.

      ARRSE: Forums The Army’s unofficial source of Military Chat, Current Affairs, Analysis, Gossip, Sports, Training, Financial Advice, Recruitment, Jokes and, of course, Bullshit
      http://www.arrse.co.uk/index.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=79078

      Enjoy.

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